Abner Mikva receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

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SHARE Abner Mikva receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

WASHINGTON — It’s a story so good, it bears retelling, and President Barack Obama did on Monday as he awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Abner Mikva, the Chicagoan who’s been a congressman, federal judge, Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, a law professor and much more.

“As a University of Chicago student, Abner Mikva stopped by the local Democratic headquarters and asked to volunteer,” Obama said. “I love this story. A committeeman asked who sent you. And Ab said, nobody. And the committeeman said, we don’t want nobody nobody sent. That’s Chicago for you.”

That phrase from Mikva’s retelling of his encounter with an 8th Ward Democratic boss — ‘we don’t want nobody nobody sent’ — came to be the defining shorthand in explaining how Chicago machine politics worked.

OPINION

Though Mikva was a nobody from nowhere — well, actually Milwaukee, but that doesn’t count in Chicago — Mikva started a political career rooted in Chicago’s independent political movement that produced a unique resume, culminated by the ceremony Monday in the White House.

Obama handed out 18 medals to Mikva and, among others, Meryl Streep, Marlo Thomas, Stevie Wonder, Tom Brokaw, Charles Sifford, Isabel Allende and slain civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who received the most sustained applause.

Ethel Kennedy also was an honoree, and among her many children and family at the event was Chicago business executive and University of Illinois board Chairman Chris Kennedy. Former Chicago-based talk show host, Phil Donahue, who is married to Thomas, was in the audience. Afterward, Thomas told me they keep in touch with their friends from when they lived in Winnetka.

Mikva’s daughters — Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Mikva; Rabbi Rachel Mikva; Laurie, an attorney who Obama chose for the board of directors of the federal Legal Services Corporation and their families were there. Missing was Mikva’s wife, Zoe — his political partner — who remained in Chicago because she had a stroke a few years ago. Mikva, 88, is suffering from macular degeneration.

Mikva, now a somebody from someplace, learned about his honor in a phone call a few weeks ago from White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who met him back in the day when she was a young lawyer in Chicago and they shared many mutual friends — and time together on Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Obama comes home to Chicago on Tuesday to tout the executive actions he has taken on immigration, meeting with a group of community leaders at the Copernicus Community Center in Jefferson Park.

Mikva said with two years left, Obama should “exercise all the executive powers that you can, that he wants to do” because “I think he realizes that this Congress will never do anything that will extend his legacy and so he should just do things like immigration, and the environment.”

Obama recalled how Mikva was interested in hiring him to be a law clerk when he was finishing Harvard Law School and Mikva was a federal judge based in Washington, D.C. Obama declined an interview, and after the ceremony, Mikva explained more of the story.

“Word came back he was going to run for office,” Mikva recalled. “I didn’t know he had any previous experience in Illinois. And I thought, ‘Boy, has he got a lot to learn. You just don’t go back to Chicago and plant your flag.”

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